May is National Older Americans Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of senior citizens to our families, communities and nation. Members of Congress can show seniors that they care in a concrete way this month by taking action on legislation that addresses a disease on the forefront of many older Americans' minds: Alzheimer's.
Fewer than half of Alzheimer's patients are told they have the disease in the early stages, according to the Alzheimer's Association's 2015 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures report. The report cites several reasons for this, including diagnostic uncertainty; physician time constraints and a lack of support services; and fear of causing emotional distress. It is true: Alzheimer's is a very frightening diagnosis for patients and caregivers, as there is currently no cure.
Despite the fear this disease generates, it is crucial for patients and caregivers to be informed of an Alzheimer's diagnosis at the earliest possible time so they can make the most of the cognitive strengths that remain and prepare for the future.
Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowSenate Democrats dial down the Manchin tension Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B MORE (D-Mich.) and Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) have joined forces on a bipartisan bill — the Health Outcomes, Planning and Education (HOPE) for Alzheimer's Act — that provides comprehensive care planning services for Medicare beneficiaries diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias.
In addition to providing much-needed support for patients and the unsung heroes who care for them, the HOPE for Alzheimer's Act recognizes we must change the prevailing perception of Alzheimer's as a "hopeless" diagnosis. Science is quickly leading us to a better understanding of the brain. We are learning more every day that will help us prevent, treat and eventually cure this disease.
At the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, we are working to be able to identify people in the preclinical phases of Alzheimer's, known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), by using markers in the brain related to memory deficits as well as discovering tangible ways to improve cognitive functions. We have developed a semantic memory retrieval tool, the Semantic Object Retrieval Test (SORT), which will help us identify individuals who are progressing from MCI into early Alzheimer's. The earlier brain and cognitive changes are identified, the earlier physicians can prescribe treatment or deliver protocols to slow their progression. Our team has also shown that adults with MCI can benefit from reasoning training with significant improvements in abstraction, memory and reasoning skills in a randomized trial.
Broader research and a new review from the Institute of Medicine have revealed important steps we can take at any stage of life to strengthen our brain health and stave off cognitive decline. Most people understand that daily habits such as eating right, getting a good night's sleep and participating in aerobic exercise will improve their physical health, but they may not realize these habits are also crucial to good brain health. Other key areas to better brain health include managing stress, learning more and being social.
For those with Alzheimer's disease and their families, the diagnosis does not have to mean the end of productivity and quality of life. Much can be done after receiving a heartbreaking diagnosis. Lives can be dramatically changed for the better when hope is instilled and preserved abilities embraced, backed by scientific research, where before hope had vanquished and only the insidious losses were apparent.
We all look forward to the day we can cure this disease that robs so many older Americans of their memories and ultimately their lives. In the meantime, we are counting on Congress to support Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers by passing the HOPE for Alzheimer's Act.
Chapman, Ph.D. is the founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.